Several factors have contributed to the Vancouver Canucks impressive start to the NHL season.
The Canucks are 8-3-1 overall and 8-1-1 in their last 10 games following a 5-3 win over the Kings in Los Angeles Wednesday night. Vancouver is getting goal production from all four lines and steady goaltending from the tandem of Jacob Markstrom and Thatcher Demko.
A strong penalty kill is also putting fuel in Vancouver’s tank.
The Canucks killed five of six penalties against the Kings. In 12 games Vancouver has given up six goals on 46 power plays against. Heading into Thursday night, the Canuck penalty kill was ranked third in the league at 86.8 per cent.
Centre Jay Beagle and winger Tim Schaller are two of the Canucks’ best facing a man advantage. Schaller says the rush of a successful penalty kill is similar to scoring a goal.
“It’s almost as good a feeling,” said the six-year-veteran who is in his second season as a Canuck. “Being able to shut down their top guys is a lot of fun.
“It takes away from their momentum, maybe makes them a little frustrated. It’s something we take pride in and we’re doing really well.”
Beagle, who signed with the Canucks as a free agent in 2018 after winning a Stanley Cup with the Washington Capitals, said the unit’s success is built around hard work and perseverance.
“It’s our trigger moments,” he said. “The way we are trying to limit teams entering the zone with the puck. Our PK forecheck is something we have been keying in on.
“It just makes the whole PK easier if you can angle them the right way.”
So far this year Beagle has logged 37 minutes 26 seconds of shorthanded ice time while Schaller is at 29:38.
Vancouver’s penalty kill finished last season ranked 11th overall at 81.1 per cent.
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‘Our groups are staying together’
Nolan Baumgartner, Vancouver’s assistant coach who oversees the penalty kill, said the biggest difference this year is consistency.
“It’s just our guys being together another year,” said Baumgartner, a former Canucks defenceman. “Our groups are staying together. Last year we had a few injures. You’re always putting somebody different together. There’s no consistency when the players are out on the ice.
“So far this year we have been healthy enough that it’s been constant partners and they read off each other, they know what to do. They know where they are going. They are always talking to each other when they come back to the bench.”
Beagle missed 24 games last year with a broken arm. After signing as a free agent Schaller struggled adapting to the Canucks. He was a frequent scratch and played just 47 games.
Beagle and Schaller have both stayed healthy and productive this season. Schaller already has four goals in 12 games, one more than he had in 47 last year.
The two used to go nose-to-nose when Schaller was with Boston and Beagle played for Washington.
Now they fit together like coffee and cream.
“I hated playing against him,” said Schaller. “You see how hard he works out there. He’s always in the right spot, doing the right thing. It’s nice to finally be on the good side of his play.
“He has probably one of the greatest work ethics I’ve ever since and I’m just trying to keep up with him out there.”
Beagle was excited the day Schaller signed with Vancouver.
“There’s been guys throughout my career [where] right away you can feel the chemistry,” he said. “You just read them. It just works.”
Baumgartner said a successful penalty kill begins in the video room, watching and learning the tendencies of an opponent’s power play.
“You just have to defend where they want the puck,” he said.
You also need players like Beagle and Schaller who bring tenacity to the ice.
“They take it very seriously,” said Baumgartner. “It’s like a group mentality when they go out there. “They get really mad when they get scored on, they feel really disappointed. They go over the boards with the mindset they are going to kill the penalty, not we hope we don’t get scored on. They are going out there thinking we are going to get this done and help our team.”
In a recent 3-2 road win over the New York Rangers the Canucks had three crucial kills, including one in the third period to preserve the lead.
“It’s a big momentum swing when you kill a penalty,” said Beagle. “It’s just like scoring on a power play. You get that boost, you get that swing of momentum and momentum swings are big.
“You find the next five minutes your team has a big push and lots of times the goals happen.”
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